Another take on offices: something other than open or closed

I have read dozens of articles in recent months about office design. Some advocating the open workplace as a source of inspiration, cameraderie, and social workology. Others arguing a return to the closed offices and cubeland of the past, where focus and quiet make getting things done possible. Recent research from the London Business School suggests the average worker is interrupted every three minutes in the office, so we have reached some breaking point where more people will demand working outside the office.

Or perhaps offices could be rethought to seem more like ‘outside the office’ in the first place?

Square has recently occupied new quarters in San Francisco, and the company’s head of office experience (that’s a first), Chris Gorman, was motivated to make the office work like a city, and less like a headquarters.

David Zax, Why Square Designed Its New Offices To Work Like a City

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.



Last year, I wrote,

The new way of work is as big a break with the industrial model as the industrial model was with the time of artisanal and agricultural work that preceded the rise of steam power and electricity. Unlike that transition, however, we will not be looking for inspiration from armies, or the slave battalions that built the pyramids. No, instead we will look to nature, or the growth of cities for inspiration.

The fast-and-loose business that is emerging as the new way of work runs more like a forest or a city than a machine. We need to learn by imitating rich ecosystems, where the appearance of chaos yields to emergent order, and reject order imposed by fiat.

Perhaps in the future businesses will allow for the flexibility that cities afford inhabitants: so long as individuals keep within the city’s building codes people can do many different things, and the results can’t be completely unanticipated. A new store opens, another closes. In the workplace, a new project kicks off and a group of people take over one corner of a floor in the headquarters, moving walls and furnishings to house that temporary activity. And meanwhile, a dozen other project teams are doing something similar. Folks working on multiple products migrate from one area to another over the course of the day, like medieval traders or nomads.

This is the start of a discussion about workplace which isn’t stuck in the open/closed dichotomy. And it’s  likely to be another area of the business where centralized planning will yield to decentralized and localized activities, and so the office of the future will not be designed top-down by office experience experts like Chris Gorman but grown, bottom-up, by the decisions of hundreds or thousands or individual workers.